As I said in the intro to my best list, 1968 saw a distinct shifting of trends in the pop world, but as usual, the less impressive chart acts were a bit slower on the uptake. Though easy listening was steadily gaining ground, ‘68 still delivered a glut of passe proto-soul, stale bubblegum pop, and various other remixes of the more unsavory trends plaguing the past 7 years. Thankfully though, we’re almost completely free of the doo-wop and brill building fare that was long overdue for retirement, and in all honesty, of all the ‘60s lists this is probably the one where I struggled the most with finding ten songs bad enough to really tear into. Either way, as pop continues to thrive, we have another smorgasbord of disappointments and irritations to make our way through. On with the show!
#10: Sergio Mendes- The Fool on the Hill
It’s not that it’s sacrilege to cover The Beatles. I have no issue with other artists doing their own interpretations of classic Beatles songs- In fact, Mendes himself did a cover of “Here Comes the Sun” in the mid-70s that I like well enough. And if any Beatles song is off-limits to covers it certainly isn’t “The Fool on the Hill”, which I like but wouldn’t exactly consider an untouchable masterpiece. No, my issue here is mostly just Medes’ use of a legitimately good song as a vehicle for boring, wallpapery lite-bossanova. His “Here Comes the Sun” cover works because the light, airy music makes for a nice pairing with the similarly sunny melody and lyrics. By contrast, “The Fool on the Hill” was written to be melancholy and thoughtful, which instrumentation that basically amounts to elevator muzak just isn’t able to convey very well. It’s not awful or anything, I just always find myself mildly annoyed that Mendes felt the need to slap this bland style over a song that was fine already.
#9: The Intruders- Cowboys to Girls
Here we have one of the earliest hits in the career of songwriting team Gamble & Huff, who would go on to found Philadelphia International Records and play a crucial role in the creation of “Philly soul”, one of the cornerstones in the bedrock of disco. These guys have a lot of records to their name which I really love, but at this early stage, they simply weren’t yet the dynamite duo they’d soon become. On “Cowboys to Girls”, the real Achilles’ heel is lead Intruder Samuel Brown, whose strained warble fails to imbue the sentimental lyric with the necessary energy or gravitas. It also hits an odd tonal dead zone, not bouncy and energetic enough to capture the youthfulness the lyrics describe, but not potent enough as a slow jam to convey the narrator’s more mature point of view. By the time the ‘70s were in full swing, and Gamble & Huff had fleshed out their approach to producing and arranging songs, the soul scene would be a lot more in step with this sort of mellow, heavily-orchestrated style, but when compared with the somewhat rougher sound many other soul artists were moving towards this year, it comes off as a total trifle. The team behind this song may have had great potential, but they just weren’t quite ready for prime-time in 1968.
#8 1910 Fruitgum Company- 1, 2, 3, Red Light
As their name implies, 1910 Fruitgum Company made bubblegum pop, and some of the worst bubblegum pop of the entire decade at that. I’ve already outlined my issues with bubblegum pop as a genre elsewhere, but this band in particular hits upon such a consistently unlikeable and cheap-sounding strain of it that the fact that they’re part of a genre I don’t really care for feels like a secondary concern. I’ve yet to encounter a song of theirs I don’t dislike, and each has its own distinct failings and irritations- a critic’s dream! “1, 2, 3, Red Light” is about the narrator’s frustration with a girl who keeps shutting down his advances, and as per usual, the song is too single-mindedly chipper to musically convey much about either party’s emotional state. Granted, there aren’t many ways to make lyrics like “baby, you ain’t right to stop me” seem anything other than pushy and entitled (who would be right to stop him, if not her?), but the horribly chintzy keyboard bleeps and Mark Kutkowski’s wimpy vocal delivery makes for an especially bland yet unpleasant pairing with an already-bad lyric.
#7: Gary Lewis and the Playboys- Sealed With A Kiss
“Sealed with a Kiss” plods the way pop music plodded back at the start of the ‘60s- which makes sense, given it’s a cover of a song from the literal start of the decade, 1960. It’s a trudging, minor-key dirge that somehow goes beyond mere tedium and gets to the point where I feel as though happiness is being physically drained out of my body through my headphones whenever I listen to it. I can’t think of anything this year that made me feel more exhausted than Gary Lewis groaning out the title line. I can certainly appreciate music that’s a little more on the downbeat, dour side, but this isn’t even downbeat, it’s just mopey. A song that’s such a relentless bummer should be about, I don’t know, being stalked by a serial killer or being addicted to heroin or something, not just a bunch of whining about how much you miss your girlfriend. Of course, it would also help if there was any kind of interesting guitar work or sonic textures going on, instead of the ho-hum backing harmonies and straightforward acoustic strumming we get here. By far, it’s the least fun pop song of the year.
#6: Tom Jones- Delilah
I’ll say this much for Tom Jones: at this point, I at least know what to expect from the guy. His music is so unfailingly bad that there’s an odd sort of comfort in how he’s rapidly becoming one of my worst lists’ most reliable mainstays. Jones is just so damned overpowering as a vocal presence that almost all of his songs end up completely smothered by him. “Delilah” in particular has the same core issue that “What’s New Pussycat?” had, in that the waltzing feel and frilly instrumentals turn the whole thing into a load of prancing histrionics. I will grant that it’s a damn sight better than “Pussycat” (still his worst single by a comfortable margin), mostly because the lyrics are actually alright- a nicely dark tale of murdering an unfaithful partner- and the more minor-key verses are a much better fit for Jones’ operatic voice than the utterly wretched chorus. Still, Jones is one of my least favorite vocalists of the entire 60s, and this song, for all the faint praise I can damn it with, doesn’t do a thing to change that.
#5: Gary Puckett and the Union Gap- Young Girl
In Gary Puckett and the Union Gap’s “Young Girl”, the nameless narrator meets and courts a lovely young lady. But alas, it is not meant to be: At some point (presumably later than he might have preferred), he discovers that the apple of his eye is, in fact, below the legal age of consent, and as any right-thinking man would be, he is forced to break things off with her. This leaves him with a lot of feelings about the whole affair, and now he wants to share those feelings with us. Look, I’m a firm believer that no subject ought to be totally off-limits in music. I think that, given the right framing and context, a musician can explore even the most unsavory topics in an artful and worthwhile way. But I still think it’s fair to say that, as a rule, I don’t really want to hear some guy sing about how he almost accidentally banged a sixteen-year-old. I’m just not interested, you know? Furthermore, when the entire message of your song is basically “oh shit, you’re how old??”, perhaps making it really obvious that you’re still VERY horny for this girl is not the artistic masterstroke you clearly think it is. When it comes to exploring the mind of a man tormented by lust for an underage girl, songwriter Jerry Fuller is no Nabokov, and no amount of overbearing orchestration is going to cover that up.
#4: The Irish Rovers- The Unicorn
“The Unicorn” is a ludicrously twee little Sunday school fable, retooling the famous religious story of the Genesis Flood to be about all the unicorns drowning. Thus, it is explained why most of us don’t see horned horses trotting about on our way to the pharmacy. Now, despite what some of these write ups may have implied, I am not some kind of dork who thinks it’s a gotcha to point out that a silly pop song has slightly morbid or dark lyrics. In this case, it’s the particular tone of silliness here that gets my hackles up. When I say this thing is a Sunday school fable, I’m not just referring to the religious underpinnings, but the infuriatingly upbeat, clean-cut presentation. I would be astonished if the Irish Rovers didn’t play this song on acoustic guitars with rainbow straps, immediately after leading a gaggle of grade-schoolers in a prayer circle, because that’s the exact youth pastor-ass vibe they give off throughout this whole song. That kind of tone is why the grimness of singing “Oh those silly unicorns” as they’re all condemned to a watery grave bothers me so much. Much like most other retellings of the Genesis Flood myth, it feels like we’re meant to uncritically accept the cruelty and brutality of it all, of allowing an entire species to perish for basically no reason (Were the unicorns sinning? They certainly didn’t seem to be!). Factor in lead vocalist George Millar’s overly precious vocals and the anemic arrangement, and the only somewhat worthwhile parts of this song are those unchanged from the (slightly better) Shel Silverstein original.
#3: 1910 Fruitgum Company- Simon Says
“Simon Says” is the kind of bad song that’s extremely hard to write about, simply because thinking about it for any length of time is such a profoundly unpleasant experience. As soon as it starts playing, I immediately want to switch it back off. It has the same flimsy, thin production value as all their other material, but it’s still somehow a thousand times worse, mostly by virtue of literally just being about the game ‘Simon Says’. Like its spiritual predecessor “The Name Game”, it’s deeply, profoundly insulting to me that this song was ever released for mass consumption. I’ve got nothing against The Wiggles or Raffi or Billy Jonas, and do you know why that is? It’s because they stay in their own little enclave, and don’t have the temerity to think anyone over the age of 7 would find their act appealing in the slightest. If this band had contented themselves with playing for crowds of preschoolers and releasing music exclusively for toddlers and their parents, they would be a minor irritation at worst. The fact that they thought this stuff was good enough to be on the radio makes them one of the most insufferable bands of the entire decade.
#2: The O’Kaysions- Girl Watcher
Okay, so. Blue-eyed soul. As the name implies, blue-eyed soul refers to hhhwite people (many of whom, I’m told, have blue eyes) making soul music, or otherwise creating their own takes on current trends in R&B (which itself is a term that was originally coined to describe pop music made by black people, back when the music world was a lot more openly and proudly segregated). As you might imagine, it’s often something of a pejorative term, but it does have a meaning outside of that, and dicey racial politics aside, there are blue-eyed soul songs I do like (spoiler: when we get to the ‘80s I’ll be putting at least a couple Hall & Oates tunes on various best lists). That said, at the core of it, it’s white guys making black music, and anyone who does that needs to have at least a modicum of sensitivity to racial issues… lest they end up where the O’Kaysions do with “Girl Watcher”. Now, the stereotype of black men being possessed of ravenous, unstoppable sexual appetites is an extremely loaded topic that I have neither the expertise nor the desire to delve into here, but if you’ve written a little ditty about perving on female passers-by and making lecherous comments asking them to walk a little slower (eugh), maybe singing that song in a, let’s be honest, fairly racist impression of a black soulsman is a really, really bad idea. If this song had actually been sung by a black group… well, the production would still be weak as all hell, and the perviness would still be a major strike against it, but y’know, fine, not everyone’s gotta be a model minority. Point is, it still wouldn’t be good, but I could make my peace with it. As it stands, however, “Girl Watcher” is, at best, impossibly tone-deaf and ignorant. At worst, it’s practically a fucking minstrel show.
#1: Ohio Express- Yummy Yummy Yummy
Sometimes I really wish I could just let these songs speak for themselves. This is a song in which the words “yummy, yummy, yummy, I’ve got love in my tummy” are sung. What more evidence of its awfulness is necessary? By way of further explaining myself, a bit of trivia: apparently, beloved avant-gardist freakos The Residents recorded a cover of this song for their 1976 album The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll, and upon listening to it, I do think their rendition of it is substantially better, exactly because it’s a completely warped, demented piss-take that would most likely horrify anyone with any warm feelings toward the original. These lyrics are flat-out unsalvageable when played straight, and especially when it’s singer Joey Levine’s boyishly enthusiastic vocals delivering them. The best performances in the world wouldn’t have saved a song with such a putrid central lyric, so I suppose it’s a good thing better ones didn’t go to waste here; it’s entirely serviceable pop rock, exactly what you’d expect from the cabal of session guys and label suits that comprised Ohio Express. The Residents had the right idea covering this the way they did: chew it into mulch and spit it back out as a grotesque, Cronenbergian nightmare, because at least then it sounds like you’re aware no one should ever, EVER sing about having love in their tummy.